From the capital Vilnius to the Curonian spit, Josh Ferry Woodard takes a whistle stop tour of the best places to visit in Lithuania. On the way he experiences street art, saunas and saltibarsciai soup… and that’s just for starters.

“Here in Lithuania, everybody forages for mushrooms and berries,” said our guide Benas, as we walked through the cobbled streets of Vilnius old town, towards Amandus restaurant for lunch. “We always say that you can eat all mushrooms – just that some of them (the poisonous ones!) you can eat only once in your life.”

As the last Pagan nation in Europe to convert to Christianity and, with 33% of the country covered in forest, it is unsurprising that foraging remains a big part of daily life in Lithuania.

A Lithuanian friend of mine once told me, proudly, of how when he was younger he would spend all day searching the woodlands behind his grandmother’s house for mushrooms to sell. “One bag to pay for a ride at the fun fair, one bag to pay for a girl to ride with me,” said Povi. “And another bag to buy a couple of beers!”

Amandus Restaurant Vilnius
Lunch at Amandus

On arrival at Amandus I was given the chance to get my hands on some mushrooms of my own. Luckily, these were porcini mushrooms – meaning it was not a once in a lifetime opportunity – however these foraged fungi did look completely different to any mushrooms I had seen before. Through some feat of gastronomic sorcery they had been turned into thin discs with a similar texture to meringue. I was tasked with breaking these mushroom discs into smaller shapes and pressing them together with goat cheese into fancy sandwiches.

…these foraged fungi did look completely different to any mushrooms I had seen before. Through some feat of gastronomic sorcery they had been turned into thin discs with a similar texture to meringue.

The theme of fresh, local and foraged food continued with a tasting menu of reimagined traditional dishes, such as: hazelnut and apple crackling, beetroot bread, whipped smoked eel, sharp arctic cod ceviche with grapefruit and dill, melt-in-your-mouth beef cheek with seasonal pickle and liquid nitrogen raspberry purée.

Užupis: A Country Within a City 

“I’d like to show you shabby corners of Vilnius. Mess, mess, it’s a mess where you can find everything,” said Benas as we crossed the bridge from Vilnius old town into the made-up self-declared Republic of Užupis.

“Look! Look! A sculpture of an alcoholic,” said Benas before turning around and pointing at a homeless person with a bottle of spirit.

“And there’s one in real life.” 

Statue of an alcoholic Uzupis
Zapoy

Užupis was originally a sanctuary for marginalised elements of society during Soviet rule, and quite rundown. However, for the most part, the district has more of a bohemian vibe these days. Buildings are brightened by the pastel colours of local street artists, installations line the riverbank and speciality coffee shops neighbour craft beer houses opposite the famous Angel of Užupis statue.

The foreign ambassador [of Uzupis] is a notoriously fat cat named Ponulis that spends most of its time in Keistoteka Bookstore.

The ‘Republic’ has its own flag, currency, mayor, constitution and cabinet members. The constitution, which features important assertions such as: “Every dog has the right to be a dog,” and “Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance,” can be found translated into over a dozen languages on Paupio Street. The foreign ambassador is a notoriously fat cat named Ponulis that spends most of its time in Keistoteka Bookstore.

Uzupis street art Vilnius
Uzupis street art
Uzupis Vilnius Lithuania
Coffee & craft beer
Uzupis constitution
The constitution

Back in the old town Benas took us to an Amber Museum, where we downed shots of amber dissolved into 999 (a strong Lithuanian spirit made from 9 roots, 9 barks and 9 herbs… The Editor is familiar with it already). And then we visited Literatu Street (a beautiful collection of over 100 artworks dedicated to Lithuanian literature) en-route to the 45-metre high ancient bell tower.

From the top of the cathedral belfry we gazed at gorgeous panoramic views of Vilnius’ cityscape of Baroque red roofs, domes and spires stretching towards the green forests on the fringe of the capital.

From the top of the cathedral belfry we gazed at gorgeous panoramic views of Vilnius’ cityscape of Baroque red roofs, domes and spires stretching towards the green forests on the fringe of the capital.

Vilnius old town
Vilnius old town
Baroque Vilnius
Baroque Vilnius

“Here in Vilnius we don’t need city parks,” said Benas. “Because we are surrounded by greenery and lakes. It only takes 30 minutes to escape into the countryside.”

Boats & Balloons at Trakai Island Castle

True to Benas’ word, it took just over half an hour to arrive in Trakai, the ancient capital of Lithuania and a popular daytrip from Vilnius.

The scenic archipelago is made up of over 200 lakes and its crowning glory is the 14th century Trakai Island Castle, a majestic Medieval palace standing in the middle of Lake Galvė.

Trakai castle Lithuania
Trakai from the sky

Our examination of the castle began with a relaxing lap of its burnt orange turrets in a boat. Then we drove to a nearby field, where things really started to heat up.

A frighteningly loud flame bellowed a few inches above my head in the disconcertingly small basket, as our pilot prepared for take-off.

A frighteningly loud flame bellowed a few inches above my head in the disconcertingly small basket, as our pilot prepared for take-off.

It was a surreal, heart in mouth moment when our hot air balloon finally started to rise. Weightlessly, we floated higher and watched the people, trees and cars beneath us dissolve into tiny inconsequential shapes.

Serenely, we drifted to heights of around 1,000 metres for awesome panoramic views of Trakai’s green spiky pine forests and squiggly cloud-shaped islands. Then, as we approached the Island Castle, our pilot let us drop to what felt like touching distance of the medieval orange turrets.

hot air balloon Lithuania
Floating over pine forest
hot air balloon reflection lake trakai
Lake reflections
hot air balloon trakai castle Lithuania
The flame

After the breathtaking, truly memorable and highly recommended hot air balloon experience, we stopped by Ertlio Namas for a delectable tasting menu of centuries-old Lithuanian dishes: Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque recipes found in old manor houses and monasteries, playfully reinterpreted for the modern age.

Accomplished plates of sturgeon and eel terrine, parsnip soup with saffron and veal, pheasant breast with cranberry sauce and chocolate plum dessert were matched with tasty cider, wine and port. 

Big Stones & Eerie Crosses

After recharging at the comfortable city centre Congress Avenue hotel, we set off for Anyksciai forest, home of a very important boulder.

Puntukas stone
The second biggest stone in Lithuania

“Every child in Lithuania has heard of Puntukas Stone,” said our new guide Linas as we breathed in the crisp forest air, scented with pine resin and thyme. “It is the second biggest stone in Lithuania and features in a famous poem ‘The Forest of Anyksciai.’”

Walking through the forest of Anyksciai, through scores of pine, birch, maple, ash and poplar trees, we stopped to hear the rhythmic thuds of a woodpecker against a tall trunk.

Walking through the forest of Anyksciai, through scores of pine, birch, maple, ash and poplar trees, we stopped to hear the rhythmic thuds of a woodpecker against a tall trunk.

“Another interesting thing,” said Linas, pointing to a green patch of wild sorrel on the forest floor. “Is the second longest word in Lithuanian, which roughly translates to ‘those of masculine gender, who are no longer foraging for wood sorrel leaves by themselves.’”

“However, this year,” added Linas as we entered a metal treetop walkway with tremendous views of the forest. “They came up with a new word, which means ‘those who are no longer fed up by blogging.’” 

The Forest of Anyksciai
The forest of Anyksciai

Later, not in the slightest bit fed up by blogging, we pulled up alongside a convoy of trucks filled with orchard apples for a delicious and hearty lunch at Perinos Gastrobaras. I started with a cold, creamy, pink saltibarsciai beetroot soup and a local apple wine. “I’ve had hundreds of these beetroot soups in my life and almost every one is different,” said Linas, dipping a hot potato chip into the thick soup. 

“I’ve had hundreds of these beetroot soups in my life and almost every one is different,” said Linas.

After a huge bowl of spinach, cheese and zucchini fusilli, we headed to Kalita Hill Alpine Coaster for an exhilarating toboggan ride. Three goes careening around the corners later we drove to the famous Hill of Crosses.

The Hill of Crosses Lithuania
The Hill of Crosses
Hill of crosses Lithuania
A story of rebellion

The landmark tells a story of rebellion. It is thought that the crosses first appeared in 1864 after a massacre carried out by the Russian Tsar. Although the Russians demolished the shrines, the local Lithuanian population endeavoured to replace them.

History began repeating itself during the Soviet era, when the hill was demolished with bulldozers at least three times. Each time the local population risked the wrath of the Soviet powers and replaced the crosses on the very same night.

History began repeating itself during the Soviet era, when the hill was demolished with bulldozers at least three times. Each time the local population risked the wrath of the Soviet powers and replaced the crosses on the very same night.

During our visit there were over 100,000 crosses laid by people from all over the world at this eerie yet compelling symbol of Lithuanian unity and rebellion.

Grilled Game, Boozy Saunas & Late Night Lake Swims

“The owner is a little obsessed with hunting,” said Linas as we arrived at Villa Dubgiris, a complex of luxury wooden cabins in a secluded lake-side location in the Mazeikiai region. “There should be some tasty meats on the menu tonight.”

lake Plinksiai Lithuania
Lake Plinksiai

We spent some time sitting on the jetty, admiring the silent blue surface of the lake before settling into our respective animal-themed rooms to get ready for dinner.

In the ‘Banquet Hall,’ a warm, rotund two-storey building with large windows, natural wooden columns and rustic fittings designed by local blacksmiths, I feasted on a succulent pink-in-the-middle roe deer steak. We also shared a plate of cured game: thin slices of salami made from venison, roe deer and wild boar.

After dinner Linas and I each took a pint of ice-cold Svyturys Ekstra Lithuanian lager into the plush Dubgiris spa. The bathhouse was kitted out with water fountains, beige sculptures and Roman mosaics.

“You know, saunas were, and still are, a massive part of Lithuanian culture,” said Linas as we sweltered in the Siberian fir-scented sauna. “They were originally created with the function of washing in mind, but they evolved to be very important socially as well.”

“You know, saunas were, and still are, a massive part of Lithuanian culture,” said Linas as we sweltered in the Siberian fir-scented sauna. “They were originally created with the function of washing in mind, but they evolved to be very important socially as well.”

Freezing winter temperatures in Medieval Lithuania meant that it was impossible for families to store water for washing. Instead they built outhouses with fire pits to bathe and cleanse. Traditionally, men would enter first, when the sauna is hottest, followed by the women and children. “These weekly gatherings are still very important for many communities,” said Linas. “This is where issues get settled.”

To cool off, we left the ancient bathing hut and tiptoed across the grass to the lake, where the swirling sparkles of the Milky Way reflected off its glassy black surface. The vastness of the icy water pulled me in and I left feeling refreshed, and slightly euphoric.

Towards Russia with Love

The next day we headed to the nearby Cold War Museum in Plokstyne. Set in an underground bunker, the museum exhibits include a timeline of the Cold War, old generator rooms and a collection of Soviet and Western propaganda.

Built in secret from the Lithuanian people during the 1960s, the Soviet nuclear missile base had enough firepower to wipe out most of Europe.

Built in secret from the Lithuanian people during the 1960s, the Soviet nuclear missile base had enough firepower to wipe out most of Europe.

Soviet Propaganda Cold War Museum
Soviet Propaganda

When we re-emerged from the gloomy subterranean tunnel we set off for the Curonian Spit – a 98km long sand-dune strip of land that separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea, and connects Lithuania to the Russian territory of Kaliningrad.

Luckily, all fears of a nuclear apocalypse were cast away when we arrived at the stylish Monai restaurant in Klaipeda for a delicious lunch of autumnal seedy soup with artisan muffins and a plate of velvety cod loin in white wine sauce with al dente parsnips, potatoes and radishes.

After crossing the ferry from Klaipeda to the Spit, we drove along a forested road until we reached the Hill of Witches. “Most of these pagan wooden sculptures were built by Lithuanian artists in the summer of 1979,” said Linas as we strolled past dark wood dragons, bearded men and princesses. “The Soviets allowed them to honour Lithuania’s Pagan heritage because this area was closed off to the public. The civilian population was not able to see the transgressive sculptures.”

One particular sculpture that stood out was a black ghoul-encrusted archway with an extremely intricate and distressing devil behind it. It’s said that if you walk beneath the arch you will never return.

Devil statue Curonian Spit
The arch of no return
Satan hill of witches
The devil beyond the border

“Are you going under?” I asked a passer-by.

“Under that? God no!” The conviction in his reply was enough to keep me away too.

After gazing across the Curonian Lagoon at another border (the Lithuanian border with Russian Kaliningrad), we rented bicycles and explored the resort town of Nida. I worked up a hefty appetite during the scenic bike ride (and Baltic Sea swim), which was promptly satisfied by a three-course dinner of tomato and red pepper soup, bacon-wrapped chicken breast with girasole mushrooms and a pot of Eton mess at Skalva Hotel.

Curonian Spit Kaliningrad
Russia in the distance
Baltic Sea Nida
The Baltic Sea

Street Art in Kaunas

Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, is home to a thriving street art scene. It all started in 2013 with a bespectacled, cosmic pipe smoking fella located on the facade of an abandoned shoe factory.

It all started in 2013 with a bespectacled, cosmic pipe smoking fella located on the facade of an abandoned shoe factory.

‘The Wise Old Man’ mural kick-started a wave of street art across the city, breathing life into everything from sketchy tunnels to residential courtyards and university campuses.

The Wise Old Man Shoe Factory street art Kaunas
The Wise Old Man

“That’s actually the artist who created this gallery,” said Linas, pointing towards a man painting a black and white woman onto a lilac wall. “He began the Courtyard Gallery by painting portraits of all the residents of this block.”

The courtyard gallery Kaunas
The Courtyard Gallery
courtyard gallery Kaunas Lithuania
Residential murals

The space, known as the only gallery open 24/7 in Kaunas, now features everything from colourful murals and mirrored mosaics to suspended chairs and lofty installations. Apart from becoming an important section of Kanuas’ cultural tapestry, the inventive artwork has helped foster a sense of community among the residents.

“For example, these bins are always clean now,” said Linas. “At least since that yellow cat has been watching over them.”

Courtyard gallery Kaunas cat street art
The watchful cat
Pink elephant street art Kaunas
The elephant of love
Da Vinci chess street art Kaunas
Da Vinci’s chessboard

On the way to lunch we stopped by a gigantic pastel pink elephant, which was drawn to represent the love proclaimed in a small piece of graffiti reading: ‘Deima + Arwnas,’ plus a beautiful Leonardo da Vinci chessboard mural.

Vista Puode is another top class restaurant specialising in fresh, seasonal interpretations of traditional Lithuanian cuisine, a fitting place for my last supper in the country. I tried another portion of cold saltibarsciai soup – this one thinner and more vinegary than the last – with a tower of fried potato pancakes with sharp garlic curd and a craft IPA from Klaipeda brewery Bocmano Usai. Not a bad way to say goodbye to Lithuania.

Josh was invited on this trip as a guest of the Lithuanian Tourist Board. All opinions are his own.

Leave a comment...

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*